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Earthwork
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Reviewed on 2011-05-13
RatedPG
Received[3]  out of 4 stars
GenreDrama
Websitehttp://www.earthworkmovie.com/
Anyone with a Midwestern background will appreciate this true story of a farm boy from Kansas. From an early age, Stan Herd (Oscar-nominated John Hawkes from “Winter’s Bone”) enjoyed getting his hands dirty while creating outdoor art.

This simple, straightforward debut feature film written, directed and produced by KU graduate Chris Ordal concentrates on a multi-acre 1994 project. Stan traveled from his home in Lawrence to Manhattan’s Upper West Side to create a massive environmental urban canvas on land owned by Donald Trump.

The clever attention-getting opening credits done by the real Stan Herd are shot from the air. The title appears in letters cut from green grass against a dirt background.

The movie’s prologue begins in 1960. It shows Stan as a kid riding on a tractor with his dad in Protection, Kan. The movie progresses to Lawrence of 1986. With a colorful background of sunflowers in the Land of Ahhs, Stan is once again riding a tractor. His wife, Janis (Laura Kirk), yells to him that a helicopter is coming. The pilot is aerial photographer Peter “Kap” Kaplan (Bruce MacVittie), who first brings national exposure to Stan’s truly incredible artistic creations.

It is now seven years later. Stan can’t pay his bills and has no money saved for his retirement. Stan sees another chance to get recognized for his crop art. Dressed in traditional Western garb including blue jeans and a straw cowboy hat, he gets the contract to beautify an Old Penn Square Railway site by agreeing to do it without compensation.

Stan recruits four homeless individuals living in the abutting tunnel to work alongside him. After clearing the lot of garbage, it takes hard manual labor to cut down the weeds. Stan rents a tractor to till the ground. He orders large quantities of lumber, railroad ties, sod, cedar mulch and river rock. With a good water supply and garden hoses, the crew plants flowers and vegetables to achieve an eclectic assortment of colors and texture.

There are a number of difficulties encountered over the nine months to pull off this amazing artistic landscaping endeavor. Stan’s domestic life suffers as Janis finds out that he took out a second home mortgage loan and forged her signature. The movie leads up to the promised national television coverage of the grand opening on June 17, only to be overshadowed by the live broadcast of O.J. Simpson being chased by the police in his famous white Ford Bronco.

This quiet and contemplative collection of moments is a tribute to the struggles that artists go through to survive and get their creations into the public eye. There is an ironic parallel between Stan’s artwork and Ordal’s film in that they both make a distinctive impression on people from a shared viewing experience.

The movie infuses life into these characters. Hawkes does an admirable job of carrying the film on his shoulders. You develop a rooting interest for him to be successful and gain recognition for his extraordinary work. The supporting cast includes James McDaniel (“NYPD Blue” and “Detroit 1-8-7”), Zach Grenier (“The Good Wife”) and SM East grad and former movie critic Jon Niccum.

The aerial photography is breathtaking, with some excellent examples of Stan’s awesome works of art. Actual video of the Manhattan site and the real Stan are shown over the end credits.

The movie’s numerous strengths include the cinematography by Bruce Francis Cole, the editing of extraneous material to 93 seamlessly flowing minutes by Brad Roszell and an upbeat, soothing guitar-heavy instrumental score by musician David Goodrich.

The movie premiered at the 2009 Austin Film Festival. It won Audience Awards at the 2010 Kansas International Film Festival, 2009 Santa Fe Film Festival and 2010 SXSW Film Festival.

After touring around the globe in 48 film festivals, this gem of independent filmmaking finally gets a regular run locally near its shooting locations of Lawrence and Lecompton, Kan. Opening for a limited engagement at the Glenwood Arts in Overland Park and the Tivoli in Westport.

Review By:
Keith Cohen "The Movie Guy"

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